Did Santa Anna slaughter every living, breathing being at the Alamo?

Everyone knows the phrase “Remember the Alamo!”

Well, almost everyone. It became a rallying cry for Texians during the last months of the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, and battle cry for Americans ever since. The phrase got its strength and longevity partly from the story that all the Texians were killed when the Alamo was over-run by the Mexican general Santa Anna during the now-famous Battle of the Alamo from February 23 to March 6, 1836. The myth is that Santa Anna ordered everyone defending and everyone taking shelter in the mission buildings at the Alamo, to be killed, including women, children, and other civilians. After the Texians surrendered, so the story goes, Santa Anna’s troops slaughtered the Alamo’s residents wholesale.

First of all, some background. The Texas Revolution was a rebellion against the Mexican government by Texians living in the Mexican province of Texas. The Texians thought that the central Mexican government was illegitimately increasing its power over the provinces and they organized a revolt.

Wait a minute, Professor, I hear you saying, who were these “Texians?” Have you developed a speech impediment? Isn’t it “Texans?” Well, Buzzkillers, it’s a detail, but an important one. “Texians” (sometimes called “Texicans” and other variations) were non-indigenous settlers in the Mexican province of Texas. Mostly, they were non-Hispanic migrants from the United States and are not to be confused with the Tejano, the Mexican group of mostly Spanish origin who had lived in Texas since the late 1690s. They are also not to be confused with the various Native American groups who had lived in Texas for, well, ever.

During the Texas Revolution, the Mexican general, Santa Anna, laid siege to the Alamo mission in late February 1836. Most of the Texian settlers in the region had taken refuge inside the mission, while Texian soldiers used it as a fort to hold off the Mexican army. On March 5th and 6th, Santa Anna’s forces ended the siege by attacking the Alamo in full force, killing all the military defenders of the fort (including the famous soldiers and frontiersmen William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett). According to legend, he then executed the civilians one by one, including women and children.

The only thing is, he didn’t. Experts disagree on the exaxt number, but somewhere between 20 and 63 civilians survived and were allowed to return to their homes or leave the territory. Santa Anna fed and interviewed each adult civilian starting on March 7th and offered to help them leave and reach their destinations. They were given blankets and money to help them on their way.

Now don’t get weepy about what a humanitarian Santa Anna was. True, almost all historians agree that he never wanted to kill civilians and that he would have considered it dishonorable. But it’s also clear from testimony given by the settlers later that Santa Anna told the survivors headed to other Texian strongholds to relate the details of the battle to the commanders and tell them that his army was immense and unbeatable. So, Santa Anna had more than humanitarian motives in helping the Texians escape and travel. He had also military intelliegence motives — to scare the rest of the Texian forces into surrendering.

They didn’t do that, however, and whipped up stories of Mexican cruelty at the Alamo to spur the Texians still fighting in the Texas Revolution. They defeated the Mexican forces on May 14, 1836 and Texas became its own Republic before becoming a US state in 1845.

So remember the Alamo, Buzzkillers, but remember it for all its complications and subtleties. Remember how it became hammered into a simple story of one big bad guy (Santa Anna) martyring all the patriotic Texians he could find.

1854_Alamo

Sources:

Randy Roberts and James Olson, A Line in the Sand: the Alamo in Blood and Memory (2002)

Stephen Hardin and Angus McBride, The Alamo 1836: Santa Anna’s Campaign (2001)

The 63 survivors are listed here, but some of them may have been sent out as couriers just before the battle started or slipped out as couriers as the battle looked like it was going badly.